A former foreign correspondent argues in his new book that Africa has been denied its rightful position as an actor at the center of global history.
In his acknowledgments in his new book Born in Blackness, Howard French pays tribute to his mother, Carolyn, who “took history seriously and wanted her children to do so, too.” She succeeded in instilling that lesson. French, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, has written a book that would have done his mother proud, one that centers the history of Africa and its people and underscores their contribution to modern world history. For too long, he maintains, the achievements of African-descended people have been erased, marginalized, and distorted. French aims to rectify these distortions, “not only to place Africans and people of African descent in the New World at the center of the history of modernity and its advent, but to depict them as prime movers in every stage of history.” He achieves the feat of bringing together multiple historiographies to produce a book accessible to a wide audience.
Crucial to this project is his African American heritage—his “Blackness.” Squarely positioning himself as a descendant of Africa whose family history connects to his broader narrative, French personalizes global history. From his first visit to Africa as a young man to his explorations in the Caribbean and Latin America, and his deep roots in the American South, he shows us how important this history is—to him, and to our understanding of the modern world.
Although he does not explicitly ask the question posed by the poet Countee Cullen almost a century ago—“What is Africa to me?”—French unmistakably seeks to answer it. The query in Cullen’s poem “Heritage” was meant for African Americans. French tells us in myriad ways, throughout the book, what Africa means to him as a Black man. This emerges in his narrative of family—about his African-born wife and her extended kin, his children, his ancestral past—as well as in his descriptions of the distorted ways in which African history was presented to him.
He wants the question to be posed and answered not just by African-descended people. He prompts us to ask, “What is Africa to the world?” Perhaps his most telling sentence simply states that “almost everyone who reads this book is somehow a product of the histories explored here.” As we grapple in the United States with legacies of heinous crimes committed against African-descended people, and debate what parts of that history should be taught, his point could not be more timely.
From Mali to Mississippi
Born in Blackness is a sweeping history that takes us from fourteenth-century western Sudan and the Sahel in Africa to the author’s family homestead in Brownland, Virginia. French begins with the Malian king Abu Bakr, who embarked on ambitious sea voyages, and his more famous successor Mansa Musa, who is well known even to third-graders in Virginia public schools for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, spreading gold along the way. This is the jumping-off point for French’s challenge to historiographies that have privileged Europeans as the first explorers. A subtheme of the book is about how scholarship on Africa has been ignored by historians of other parts of the world. As French fleshes out the known history of African encounters with Europeans, he urges us to recognize African agency and impact. He outlines the contours of “Black” history beginning in Africa, and delving into passages in the slave trade, enslavement, resistance, and resilience of Africans.
The journey brings us to São Tomé, the island off the coast of West Africa where the first sugar plantations were established, models for later plantations in the Americas. French also takes us to Brazil, Barbados, Haiti, and other sites in the Caribbean to underline the importance of enslaved labor in the development of those colonies. Recounting rivalries between Europeans over African territories and for control of African labor, French stresses Africa’s role in the success of major European powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Without Africans, he muses, “it is hard to imagine a whole chain of familiar historical developments that followed. The New World would not have been made viable anywhere near the extent” that it was.
French takes us finally to the United States, describing how Africans resisted and revolted in Louisiana, showing the conditions and history that birthed the Mississippi Delta blues that his beloved Muddy Waters sang about, and recognizing what he calls, in a chapter title, the “Gifts of Black Folk.” He emphasizes the achievements of African Americans like abolitionist writers David Walker and Solomon Northrup, and his own cousin, Simeon Booker, the journalist responsible for showing the image of Emmett Till’s battered body in Jet magazine. “Blacks,” he writes, “have played a leading role in supplying energy, creativity, and moral urgency to the American project from the very outset.”
If I find fault with this book, it is in its inattention to women. We are left wondering whether the only Africans pivotal to world history were men. We are not told what roles women of African descent played in the narrative French relates. Where are Queen Nzinga, Nanny of the Maroons, and Yaa Asantewaa? How did Maria Stewart, Ida B. Wells, and Eslanda Robeson contribute to modernity?
Though he leaves much out, what French chronicles in the pages of this book is not new; he builds on the work of scholars in the fields of African and African diaspora history. French is adamant about recognizing their scholarship, going to great pains to name the historians whose work informs the book. Nonetheless, the book is uniquely his. The copious amount of research he has done is a testament to his respect for the historical enterprise.
Historians are not always enamored of journalists writing history. French has long been adept at engaging with history and has a deep respect for the profession. But with his own ability to popularize this knowledge, he illustrates the failure on the part of scholars to make their work more accessible and better known outside the academy. French’s tour de force certainly might give historians pause as he beautifully, and with clarity, chronicles five hundred years of history, spanning four continents.
French also intervenes in the growing debates about how American history has been and ought to be taught. Born in Blackness asks why certain histories have not been included or are not more prominent in curricula. Throughout the book, French criticizes this willful ignorance. In the process, he contends with scholarship that excluded or sought to discredit the work of African-descended scholars like C. L. R. James and Eric Williams, who showed the important place of Africans in world history. French laments this “long process of diminishment, trivialization, and erasure of Africans and of people of African descent from the story of the modern world,” and seeks to correct the record.
What will Americans lose if they come to understand this history as French presents it? What harm will come to children from learning this history in schools? French declares: “I would be remiss if I didn’t make clear that the most egregious forms of historical erasure do not involve an assortment of mostly small, former slave-trading or plantation societies scattered around the Atlantic Rim. The most important site of forgetting, by far, has been the minds of people in the rich world.” He calls for “rewriting grade school lessons about history,” and rethinking “the way we describe and explain the world we all inhabit.”
French hopes that recognizing how important African-descended people have been in world history will “transform the way we understand the history.” There will be those who argue that he overstates the case for African influence or exaggerates the role played by the continent’s people. When we consider the short shrift given to African and African diaspora histories for so long, perhaps he should not be blamed for the vociferous case he makes. French wants to change the narrative, and he presents a persuasive argument. This is vindicationist history in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and George Washington Williams, African American scholars who highlighted Black achievement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Fighting for Africans” is the title of a chapter in the book, and that is exactly what French does as he battles for a place for Africans in world history, urging his readers to understand that the continent “has been the linchpin of the machine of modernity.”
In 1915, Du Bois wrote: “There are those, nevertheless, who would write universal history and leave out Africa.” Born in Blackness has ensured that Africa will not be left out. For those who pick up this book, the significance of Africa and its contribution to modernity will be made obvious.